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June 20, 2010

This is Fictile Trap

Stuart Ian Burns watches as Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens.

“Ah shit, it’s not fucking Davros is it?”

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a bit will know that out of all of us, I’m the one who tends to have the biggest emotional reaction to the franchise, at least during an episode.  My reviews have been littered with paragraphs in which I admit to shouting, screaming, laughing, clapping and yes, swearing at whatever bit of dramedy is being thrown at us in the name of entertainment.

Sometimes it’s criticism, sometimes it’s disbelief, sometimes it’s desperation or in the case of the version of me from forty minutes into the episode who shouted the Davros comment, all three -- and many more idioms, because by then, all four lobes of my brain had formally announced hostilities, with the frontal and temporal finally getting the upper hand over my parietal.  The occipital was just biding its time.  

So expertly had Steven Moffat developed his mystery as to what would be in the Pandorica, so cleverly had he withheld that pesky narrative information, but also so used are we to cop outs and a lack of imagination that despite that build up, as soon as the Airfix Daleks popped into Henge’s basement my occipital made its move, drew victory against the other lobes and the Davros comment catapulted through my lips leaving a dirty mark my LCD tv …

… just as the Cybermen made their entrance, demonstrating that more cunning adventures were afoot.  Not long afterwards, as we discovered a peace treaty had been signed between the monsters of the Moffat and Davies eras on screen, another was agreed in my head allowing the rest of my bemused form simply to sit open mouthed, gaping as the cliffhanger to end all, well cliffs and hangers and everything else in the Whoniverse developed in all its glory.

Who? When?  Why?  What? How much have you got?

The reason my brain cells were in such a spin was because as with the rest of the series, this was an episode about questions.  Who? When? Why? What? How much have you got?  Much of Doctor Who is about that.  It’s inherent in the title.  All stories are structure around these questions – the good ones anyway.  Much has been written about how the traditional companion role is to ask questions so that the Doctor can answer them.  But a slight of hand which has served the series across the decades is that the timelord asks just as many questions himself. 

The Pandorica Opens lays that mechanism bare.  When a transcript of the episode is published, most of the dialogue will have punctus interrogativus plastered across the end of it and often in the middle.  But unlike many of those classic stories, were because of the need to give Roger Delgado something to do, we were given answer to those questions as part of a parallel narrative, in The Pandorica Opens, we were as clueless as the leads.  We all became the Doctor, full of questions.  And without the help of an Immortality Gate. 

Moffat had two options with these close episodes.  He could have brought everything back down and told a small story that managed to answer all of questions, perhaps even in Amy's house, a natural sequel to The Eleventh Hour.  He may yet still.  But for episode twelve he needed to prove something to himself, that he could also do blockbusters, big speeches, big spaceships.  Yet unlike Davies's space operas which still had character at the heart but rather random storytelling, The Pandorica Opens also had dense, mostly logical plotting.

Which means that each time I want to talk about about some of the best direction the series has yet seen from Who-newcomer but tv drama veteran Toby Haynes and the amazing photography of his long term colleague Stephan Pehrsson (neither of who has had much genre experience other than Spooks: Code 9 which hardly counts) I find myself asking a litany of questions - there's more going on this one episode than whole series of the old show, and that includes The Key To Time season.  This paragraph was the last to be written so that I can warn you that yet again, the following will not be for fans of good copy editing.  For example, this segway makes little sense.

the following will not be for fans of copy editing

Over the next week, much of the talk, and we fans do like to talk, will be about that climax, which is a shame because the teaser was perhaps the most audacious in the show’s history, vying for superiority with the team-up opening of The Stolen Earth (which feels likes as old as The Keys of Marinus at this point).  Despite being one the most interesting of the series (Playback!), Doctor Who Confidential conclusively failed to explain whether all of these actors were brought back together or if, as I hope and expect, these little bits of scenes were included in the shooting schedule for the previous episodes.

The “Children of Time” turned out to in fact to be a bunch of people from near contemporary London and Cardiff because that’s were the timelord chose to land his TARDIS.  This group of friends emerged from across the vortex to help this Doctor who sees all of time and space as his home.  Unfolding like an adaptation of the next volume of Gary Russell’s The Doctor Who Encyclopaedia, we can now surmise that Vincent was driven to suicide by his vision the TARDIS’s destruction, Bracewell continued to work with Churchill and Liz Ten’s brain is still (just about) intact. 

True, the fictional logistics were effectively a more prosaic version of the way River communicated with the Doctor in Time of the Angels, as was the coincidence of this incarnation just happening to be in the right point to receive the message in the right order but as he would later remark “There are more things in heaven and earth, Rory. Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”  Or something like that.  

the next volume of Gary Russell’s The Doctor Who Encyclopaedia

You might even question how all of the monsters would be able to lure the Doctor to this exact spot – did one of them put the idea for the date and location in Vincent’s brain because without that data being splattered onto a canvas, River wouldn’t have known were to bring the Doctor to and well, it's at this point we hit the door marked The Big Bang and an entry intercom that when phoned has a determined Scottish brogue on the end whispering “I’ll explain later.”  But that can’t stop the questions.

Like, why was River Song already in the Stormcage Containment Facility?  In our previous encounter, the impression was that she’d been sent down for killing a good man, the implication being that it would be the Doctor and in this finale, and yet here she is already kissing the penitentiary.  If it was that simple to Cool Hand Luke it out of there, why didn’t she do it already?  Was she waiting for Churchill’s phone call?  Is she post Flesh and Stone but pretending to be the younger version of herself?

Alex Kingston’s delicious jaunt through time suggested perhaps that younger version but she was perfectly at ease with Amy and didn’t seem as bothered about how old the Doctor was and when they’d last met, less than usual at least.  But this was the River Song that had been teased before, the galactic traveller brimming with wit and imagination and unafraid to use a second hand time ring -- which she must still have on her in the TARDIS console room at the close of the episode …

Is the underhenge conclusive proof after all these years that The Meddling Monk was lying when he said that he aided its construction via some anti-gravity doodah?  Was the Pandorica in position while the Eighth Doctor and Sam visited during one of my favourite Short Tips, the atmospheric The People’s Temple?  Or for that matter when Theshold transported the whole thing, lock, stock and stone to the Moon in the comic strip Wormwood?  

Nothing is as it initially seems

None of these questions will have been in Moffat’s mind as he wrote this, which is probably for the best, because this spooky chamber was indeed more like something from an Indiana Jones film which shows his heightened aspirations for what the show is capable of.  But this is a typically Moffat episode.  Nothing is as it initially seems – and I don’t just mean that the stars didn’t really ride the horses (as we finally see one of a dozen shots which were originally rammed into our consciousness in the original exciting series trailer). 

But even in here, even with the Pandorica business, the episode took a detour into some exciting Amy on Cyberman action.  This crawling then walking homage to John Carpenter's The Thing offered one of the grossest shots of the series as its masked skipped open to reveal a skull, the reaction exquisitely played by Karen as she bashed it against the wall.  Gillan had a great episode all round, one moment exhibiting child-like wonder and another getting excited about the Romans.  Lacan would have had a field day with Amy.

It’s a mark of the Moffat’s understanding of Doctor Who and its audience that while us big kids are wrapping out brains around the big narrative brickbats, the kids can still be scared to.  What are we meant to believe was the origin of this remnant?  Was it left behind when the monsters dropped off the prison?  Did an Uvodni or Roboform (or some other head Neil Gorton had lying around the creature shop) take a dislike to him?  Left there by some future version of the Doctor so that it could stick Amy with the dart …

From scary straight into funny and the Doctor’s reaction to the sudden emergence of Rory.  Some are already suggesting that this is Arthur Darvill’s best performance but if we assume that because of his mechanical make-up the character is a more vital presence, more acute with his banter, more forthright, perhaps a touch braver, the comparison is simply in seeing a different version of the same character, revealing a subtlety at the heart of his previous appearances.  

proper Rory but other Rory, auton Rory

Funny the first time, these initial scenes develop even greater poignancy on repeated viewings now that we know it’s not proper Rory but other Rory, auton Rory.  Unless they're both autons.  Has Rory been an auton all the time, is that why his staff badge says it was issued 30th November 1990 decades before Amy’s date?  Has he been quietly on Earth all of those years biding his time?  Is that how he retains all of the memories of his death and resurrection?  Why that photo wasn’t wiped from history too?

The Doctor’s pronouncement to the monsters of the galaxy was a summation of Matt Smith’s characterisation over the past eleven and a bit episodes, like his “battle” with the Atraxi, a demonstration that sometimes his best defence is the forty-odd years worth of history.  Moffat likes this kind of posturing and after however many centuries of adventure, it’s only fair that he should be able to cash in his annuity once in a while.  Pity that up in said spaceships the collective menace of the galaxy are looking at their watches and tutting about poor workmanship as they realise the Pandorica hasn’t opened yet and that they should come back a bit later. 

Smith surprisingly still has his doubters (including Smith himself) but his mercurial magician act fits the mood perfectly, especially with River’s prophetic description about the Doctor being at the centre of many fairytales.  His desperation as he realises that all of his worst enemies, in forming an alliance, had set the scene for their own downfall was as moving as anything in previous years, even if Murray’s emotive music didn’t quite match the shot of the Sontaran’s noble if determined potato face (Are the Rutans in this alliance?  Who brokered that peace deal?).

The casting of Christopher Ryan as said Sontaran was a neat piece of continuity and another reminder that though Moffat has his own ideas about how Doctor Who is a fairy tale, ladedadeda, this is still the same series that produced The Sontaran Stratagem.  One of the quirks of the Who franchise (and sci-fi franchises in general) is that character designs signed off on by a previous administration will end up having service for quite some time.  The sudden emergence of so many aliens from the earlier era should be quite jarring – and quite purposeful due to the budget restrictions – it’s an easy shorthand for demonstrating the oddity of the alliance.  

(humina humina)

Of course, it would have been fun to have one of the throwaway aliens included, not least the Gareth Roberts created spin-off alien Chelonians or the Drahvins (humina humina) or the Zygons, but why would you spend the money if all they’re going to do is stand there and be upstaged by the Tonka Daleks anyway ala the Ogrons and Frank Butcher in Dimensions in Time?  That said, the appearance of the Weevils is worth querying not least because we’ve not seen them show much in the way of intelligence before.  Shouldn’t they be trying to gnaw the leg off a Hoix?

Now back to the ending and the reveal that it was never about what was emerging from the Pandorica but rather what would be placed in it which is a spectacular piece of writing from Moffat.  The initial appearance of the Daleks was of course a classic piece of misdirection from Moffat which was supposed to make us all fear the worst (however much we liked Julian Bleach's portrayal last time) and of the kind which I hope will mean that in the finale it'll be revealed that all the plot holes in this series were indeed put there on purpose making all the reviews which consist of nothing but questions and nods to inconsistencies look a bit foolish ...

If this had been the previous era, my guess as to how the cliffhanger would be resolved would have included the cyber genes saving Amy, the space-time manipulator saving River and the Doctor escaping from the Pandorica because he’s the Doctor.  But Moffat is too intricate a writer for that; he likes to produce second parts that are structurally and tonally unlike their predecessor and there are too many open enquiries about duck ponds without ducks, why Amy’s life doesn’t make any sense - rattling about in that empty house, who is manipulating the TARDIS and the origin of that raspy, ancient, but artificial voice with its deathly prediction: “Silence will fall”

Ah shit, it’s not fucking Davros is it?


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